In an exquisite performance of political choreography, Republican talking heads took to the Sunday talk shows to defend New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. Christie, the likes of Rudy Giuliani and Karl Rove suggested, was being victimized while President Obama was left unscathed by the non-scandals surrounding the Benghazi tragedy and the IRS probes of political spending by supposed non-profit, social welfare groups left and right. Rove went a step further, arguing that Christie's press conference and firing of his deputy chief of staff proved the former Bush U.S. Attorney was "what we want in a leader, somebody who steps up and takes responsibility."
Of course, Karl Rove of all people should know. After all, it was Rove who was responsible for elevating the inexperienced Christie, a Bush "pioneer" who raised $350,000 for Dubya's presidential campaign, to the rank of federal prosecutor. And when it comes to clueless chief executives supposedly taking responsibility for the political vendettas perpetrated by their closest staff, Karl Rove can point to President George W. Bush's Plamegate performance as a role model.
As you may recall, the "Payback Principle" was the m.o. of the Bush administration. General Eric Shinseki was forced to retire for telling Congress the occupation of Iraq would require "several hundreds of thousands of troops." Bush's head of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) threatened to fire Medicare chief actuary Richard Foster if he told Congress his forecast for the cost of the President's Medicare prescription drug plan. And most famously, Team Bush outed covert CIA operative Valerie Plame after her husband Joe Wilson's July 2003 op-ed about the bogus claim that Iraq sought yellowcake uranium in Niger.
Please read below the fold for more on the comparisons of Bush and Christie.
In June 2004, President Bush declared he would "fire anyone found to" have leaked the agent's name. But after the revelations that Rove and Cheney Chief of Staff Scooter Libby had spoken to reporters about Plame, Bush in July 2005 raised the bar for dismissal, instead announcing that only if anyone on his staff committed a crime in the CIA leak case, that person will "no longer work in my administration." Regardless, it had long been clear that Bush (like Chris Christie now) had no intention of getting to the bottom of the wrongdoing by his closest aides. As President Bush explained to a questioner during his October 7, 2003, press conference:
"I don't know if we're going to find out the senior administration official. Now, this is a large administration, and there's a lot of senior officials. I don't have any idea. I'd like to. I want to know the truth. That's why I've instructed this staff of mine to cooperate fully with the investigators -- full disclosure, everything we know the investigators will find out. I have no idea whether we'll find out who the leaker is -- partially because, in all due respect to your profession, you do a very good job of protecting the leakers. But we'll find out."Not, it turned out, with any help from President Bush and his White House team. In October 2005, Thomas DeFrank of the New York Daily News reported, "Bush was initially furious with Rove in 2003 when his deputy chief of staff conceded he had talked to the press about the Plame leak." As one of DeFrank's sources put it:
"Bush did not feel misled so much by Karl and others as believing that they handled it in a ham-handed and bush-league way."But one person who did feel misled was Bush's press secretary, Scott McClellan. As he revealed in his book, What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and What's Wrong with Washington, McClellan revealed:
The most powerful leader in the world had called upon me to speak on his behalf and help restore credibility he lost amid the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. So I stood at the White house briefing room podium in front of the glare of the klieg lights for the better part of two weeks and publicly exonerated two of the senior-most aides in the White House: Karl Rove and Scooter Libby.McClellan had reason to feel betrayed.
There was one problem. It was not true.
I had unknowingly passed along false information. And five of the highest ranking officials in the administration were involved in my doing so: Rove, Libby, the vice president, the president's chief of staff, and the president himself.
On September 23, 2007, he explained to the press why "the president knows" that Karl Rove wasn't involved, calling the charge a "ridiculous suggestion in the first place."
"There is simply no truth to that suggestion. And I have spoken with Karl about it."Two weeks later on October 7, McClellan repeated his defense of Rove, Libby and the Bush White House in the Plamegate leak:
"Unfortunately, in Washington, D.C., at a time like this, there are a lot of rumors and innuendo. There are unsubstantiated accusations that are made. And that's exactly what happened in the case of these three individuals. They're good individuals, they're important members of our White House team, and that's why I spoke with them, so that I could come back to you and say that they were not involved. I had no doubt of that in the beginning, but I like to check my information to make sure it's accurate before I report back to you, and that's exactly what I did."That's not all he did. For the rest of his time as Bush's press secretary, Scott McClellan avoided all questions with the same deflection. As he put in July 2005, "While that investigation is ongoing, the White House is not going to comment on it."
Of course, if that sounds familiar, it should. As he made clear in his press conference last week about his staff's September subterfuge at the George Washington Bridge, Chris Christie doesn't know what happened and doesn't want to know.
"I would never have come out here four or five weeks ago and made a joke about these lane closures if I had ever had an inkling that anyone on my staff would have been so stupid but to be involved and then so deceitful as to just -- just to not disclose the information of their involvement to me when directly asked by their superior. And those questions were not asked, by the way, just once; they were asked repeatedly."Just not after the revelation of "time for a traffic jam in Fort Lee" came to light. As Christie explained, he either didn't care why he was lied to or was concerned about an ongoing investigation:
"I have not had any conversation with Bridget Kelly since the email came out. And so she was not given the opportunity to explain to me why she lied because it was so obvious that she had. And I'm, quite frankly, not interested in the explanation at the moment...For his part, Rudy Giuliani was convinced. As he told Martha Raddatz of ABC News on Sunday, "he's handled it the best way you can possibly handle it." But Giuliani was quick to add:
If I did that, then you'd have the legislature complaining that I'm talking to someone who the chairman has said yesterday publicly he intends to call as a witness.
And I think the higher priority is for me not to interfere with what the legislature is in the process of doing. And so no, I'm not going to do that because then -- listen, the political nature of this would lead charge -- to charges of interference. I'm not going to do that. If after -- if she's brought to testify there, which the chairman says he intends to do, and she testifies, if after that time I have -- we have other questions, then we can make the decision at that time whether to pursue that information."
"He's held a press conference, he's flatly denied it. If for some reason it's not true, the man has put his political career completely at risk. If it turns out that there's some evidence that he knew about it, he's taken the complete risk that his political career is over."Not necessarily. After all, Ronald Reagan survived Iran-Contra even after telling the American people "I did not trade arms for hostages." And as it turned out, George W. Bush knew who the "senior administration officials" behind Plamegate were all along.